The Irish of Silicon Valley

The Irish emigrant experience in Silicon Valley has changed from one of survival to one of ambition, and from one of permanent displacement to one of constant connection

The compact cemetery lies in serene opposition to the busy streets beyond its boundaries. There is a sense here of time standing still, with the sunlight dappling through the overhanging trees, casting shadows on the carved letters on the assortment of tombstones.

The names and dates hint at tough lives, often cut short in their prime. There is Joseph Cunningham from Roscommon, who drowned in 1856, aged 25. There is Katie Lennon from Kiltulla, Co Roscommon, who died in 1859 at the age of 24, and John Rohen from Ballanahaun in King's County, as Offaly was called, who died in 1855 at the age of 30.

One of the most poignant tombstones is that of Annia Coffey, the "beloved wife of William", who died in 1866 at the age of 34. The grave also contains the remains of their children, Matilda Annia and Josephine, who died aged 10 weeks and 45 days, respectively. "The Last Tribute of Love" reads the epitaph.

There are dozens more such names, from Clare and Galway and Tipperary and Armagh, but while the majority of those buried here are Irish, it is a multinational congregation, so to speak – there is Luis Antonio Arguello and Henrietta van Crombrugghe, there is Florinda Yuri and Vicenza Medana, and beside John Keenan from Derry, there is Don Francisco de Haro, the first mayor of this community.

This is the cemetery of Mission San Francisco de Asís, better known as the Mission Dolores, one of 21 Californian missions established in the 1770s, the first push by Spanish missionaries to establish a foothold in the western frontier of North America. The mission was the founding settlement of what was to become San Francisco.

We usually think of Boston or New York when we consider the history of the Irish in America, but thousands of Irish emigrants in the mid-19th century made their way out here.

Looking at the dates on those gravestones, one can't help but think of the sort of Ireland that they left behind – born in the 1820s and 1830s, they left a country facing starvation. And one realises the sort of California they found – by 1849, San Francisco was exploding in size thanks to the gold rush, with fortunes to be made digging for natural resources.

The stark contrast, between famine and fortune, must have been immense.

Today, the gold rush has been replaced by the technology boom, with fortunes to be made in Silicon Valley. Just a few blocks to the east of the Mission Dolores, in the appropriately named Pioneer Building, lies the global headquarters of Stripe, the digital payments processing start-up.

As a metaphor for the present-day gold rush, Stripe could hardly be more apt – instead of digging for valuable metals, the company looks set to redefine how we conduct transactions in the 21st century, earning a few fractions of a cent on every dollar.

Already valued at $5 billion, it is one of the leading unicorns, as start-ups valued at more than $1 billion are known in Silicon Valley.

Stripe, of course, was founded by Patrick and John Collison, two young brothers from Co Limerick, but it is in little sense an Irish company – instead it is unmistakably a product of Silicon Valley and could have been built and realised nowhere else.

The Collison brothers are just two of the multitudes of Irish people working in the global capital of the technology industry, making a journey so starkly different from that of their predecessors.

It is a transition to which John Hartnett has given considerable thought. Another Limerick native, Hartnett moved to Silicon Valley in the 1990s as a senior manager with Palm, the early personal digital assistant manufacturer, and has seen first hand how the area fosters technological innovation like nowhere else on earth.

Witnessing the importance of establishing a network for Irish entrepreneurs and technologists, Hartnett founded the Irish Technology Leaders Group in 2007, with a desire to "use our history as a platform for the future", to "change the dialogue a bit, and change the conversation, to focus on how we've got great engineers, great developers, great companies, entrepreneurs".

“There has been three phases to our migration,” he says. “The first phase was really all about survival. When you think about the Famine and the history over 150 years ago, people were coming over here literally to survive. If you look at the next big wave after the war in the 1950s, I think of it as being a necessity. People needed to get a job. They were trying to build a better future.

“And I feel this wave is about success. This generation here right now, it’s a combination of people saying ‘I want to come out here to work with the best of the best and be better’, and others are saying ‘I am actually starting my own company and doing my own thing’.”

Those two paths are the primary routes for the Irish working in technology in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. There are dozens if not hundreds of rising Irish managers and engineers and executives at the big multinationals such as Google, Facebook and Apple – mostly the inevitable reverse flow of talent from those companies' large operations in Ireland.

But there are also a smaller number of entrepreneurs who have located in the Valley to build their own businesses, an ambitious move that is already paying off for some of them.

“When people want to work together, they come together. That happens in all fields and industries – fashion and finance, and movies and tech,” says Eoghan McCabe, chief executive of customer communication platform Intercom, which is based in downtown San Francisco. “If your ambitions are global and at a scale, at the biggest scale, then you do yourself a disservice by not being here.”

McCabe and his co-founders, Des Traynor, Ciarán Lee and David Barrett, had already developed technology companies in Ireland, but, having "played with their ambition", as he puts it, they decided to found their next company in San Francisco.

“In Ireland, it doesn’t take long to be the biggest fish in that small pond, to be the most successful in a range of industries,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s noble, but all of us validate ourselves around our peers – we’re tribal and designed to think about pecking orders and what not. If you’re surrounded by people who are frankly less successful than you, you remove some of that hunger and drive and ambition.

“So being around truly brilliant, the most brilliant, the most successful, the greatest and smartest and most accomplished people in the industry you’re passionate about, is a great motivating factor.”

McCabe teases out the nature of this modern ambitious diaspora – appreciating what it is to leave home to further yourself, and not take it for granted, seems important to him, as if unpacking it is somehow fundamental to appreciating the underlying process of innovation and entrepreneurship that fuels the city.

“Immigrants do appreciate other immigrants,” McCabe adds. “There’s a special energy and grift and hustle you get from someone who is willing to up and leave their comfortable culture and their home and their family and their friends, who are able to land in a new f***ing place and figure it out on their own.

“The majority of new start-ups are founded by immigrants here. Immigrants have a massive influence here in the Valley.”

Intercom recently completed a $50 million funding round and its offices, in downtown San Francisco, are the archetypal clean spaces of a booming tech start-up, minimalist yet welcoming, arrays of long desks and a variety of conference rooms named after Dublin neighbourhoods.

Its Dublin offices, where the company builds all of its R&D and technology, reciprocates with spaces called after San Francisco districts, a pleasing yin-yang symmetry that captures some of the dynamics at play.

That pattern of naming the new after the old is a venerable tradition, of course.

Back in 1854, two Galwegians, Denis Oliver and Dan McGlynn, who had found success in gold-rush era San Francisco selling paint, bought some land south of San Francisco and founded a ranch, which they called after the area outside Galway where Oliver grew up. Menlo Park, as they christened it, is now globally famous as the headquarters of Facebook, and is also home to many of Silicon Valley's most powerful venture capital firms, stretching along Sand Hill Road west of Stanford University.

Among them is Andreessen Horowitz, which has quickly become a VC heavyweight since its foundation by internet pioneers Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz in 2009. The first person they brought in to join them as the firm expanded was Dublin native John O'Farrell, who had previously worked with the founders at Loudcloud.

Operating at the heart of Silicon Valley, O'Farrell has a unique perspective on the technology industry. Having worked in Germany and with the European Commission in the past, he is often asked by visiting dignitaries from Europe to diagnose what makes Silicon Valley the epicentre of global technology and innovation, and above all how it might be replicated. The answer, inevitably, is not what most people want to hear.

“There’s a bunch of unique ingredients, including a tremendous amount of time to get the Valley to where it is now,” he says. “It happened organically and it couldn’t have happened if somebody tried to plan it, it would never work. It’s a very unique place and it’s the best place to build companies, including companies run by Irish people.”

In that regard, O’Farrell offers a single prescription for Irish entrepreneurs with serious aspirations.

“My general advice to start-ups based in Ireland is . . . to get out here. If you’re serious about building a global company, this is the place to be.This is such a melting pot and a pressure cooker, it forces you to be your best. It gives you access to the best talent and the ecosystem of VCs and partners and universities and everything else that goes into making Silicon Valley unique.

“So I advise Irish entrepreneurs if they’re serious about not just building a quick flip, but building something to have a lasting mark on the world, you’ve got to do it from here.”

An industry that attracts so many of the world’s best minds to an area as globalised as Silicon Valley leads to a rather unavoidable de-emphasising of national affiliations.

An entire cohort of people focused on technology can lead to, as Intercom’s McCabe puts it, “flavours of homogeneity” in the city.

“The techies that have come from Ireland, I agree with the hypothesis that they don’t particularly associate with being Irish,” says O’Farrell. “They’re proud to be Irish, but they don’t think Irish first, they think I’m a technologist first or a VC first, or an entrepreneur first or an engineer first. Which I think is the right way to go, because you’ve got to think about what makes you, hopefully, good at what you do.”

That trend reflects a fundamental shift in what a diaspora might represent in an increasingly globalised world, a shift in emphasis that Anita Sands and her brother Neil have direct experience of in recent years.

"After the Collisons, we are the second Irish siblings in Silicon Valley," jokes Neil, which rather downplays their own achievements – Anita is on the board of three tech companies (Symantec, ServiceNow and Pure Storage), while Neil is an executive with Salesforce.

He has also acted as president of the Irish Network Bay Area for four years, facilitating meet-ups and networking opportunities for Irish people in the area.

"There is a need for a whole new vernacular when it comes to thinking about the Irish abroad," says Anita, whose Louth accent has been only partially diluted by years living in North America.

“There’s a need for a whole new lexicon, a need for us to not think of those who leave Ireland as lost or gone and certainly not forgotten. We have a need to recast our brand – we are not just a small island, but we are nodes in a global network. We have to get rid of the old legacy labels of the past – of immigrant or exile or even diaspora, which to me feels like an outdated term – and come up with a new lexicon for what it means to be part of this global network of people.”

For those at the executive and boardroom level, like the Sands, the technology community is a relatively small network in which to be prominent nodes, but as Neil points out, it “has a knock-on effect”.

The reality is we all feel far more part of an integrated global network of people than ever before, largely thanks to the technology created in Silicon Valley – in many practical senses, the technology created here has shrunk the world dramatically.

While San Francisco might be an 11-hour flight away and eight hours behind Dublin, thanks to messaging apps such as WhatsApp, social networks such as Facebook and devices such as the smartphone, today’s migrants are never more than a few taps away from being in touch with family and friends.

For Oli McCormack, who has lived in San Francisco for five years and has worked at Google and at an agri-tech startup, WhatsApp in particular captures that sense of perpetual connection.

“I’m kind of private, so I turned off the read receipts on WhatsApp” – the two blue check marks indicating your message has been read – “but my mother persuaded me to turn them back on, so she would know I’m receiving the messages sent by members of the family. So even if I don’t get around to replying, I’m still a present part of the circle, even in my absence. I’m always connected that way.”

Such a permanent sense of connection to home must have seemed like an impossible dream for those generations of Irish who moved to the US and San Francisco even as recently as the early 1990s, never mind those who arrived during the gold rush.

For all those generations, the move represented a far more profound break with home and in its stead, a far more pressing need for a substitute sense of community.

The United Irish Culture Centre is one manifestation of that substitution. Built by Irish construction workers in the heavily Irish Sunset district and opened in 1974, it is perched just two blocks from the Pacific – standing at the door, the haze of the surf and the smell of the sea are thick in the air. It is as if, having left Ireland for the new world, these Irish migrants felt compelled to keep travelling to the very furthest point west before stopping to create a slice of home.

Volunteers Josephine Coffey and Valerie McGrew give a warm welcome and offer a tour, pointing out the new artworks commemorating 1916 and the trophies belonging to the various local GAA and soccer clubs. A large function room hosts dinners and events and is laid out in preparation for a ball to honour Irish police officers, while the bar and restaurant serves delicious Guinness and fine Irish fare. There is even a library well stocked with books on Irish history and novels.

The atmosphere is warm and convivial, the sense of loyal community wonderfully palpable. It is telling that both Coffey and McGrew’s links to Ireland go back many generations – Irishness is not something that Ireland has a monopoly on, evidently, and their dedication to the centre is a remarkable testament to the power of national identity.

It is clear the UICC serves as a kind of nexus for the traditional Irish community in the area, but also clear it has little relationship with the new generation of Irish working in the technology sector.

“We are planning ways to revitalise the centre and hopefully to make some connections with the new Irish people coming over here, get them involved, but it’s hard,” says McGrew of the challenges facing a centre that serves a dwindling community.

That challenge is emblematic of the larger generational change in Irish emigration – almost as a byproduct of the technological changes that have reshaped how we live and interact, the emigrant experience has been dramatically refashioned. The links to home are now sustained by software and silicon, lessening the need to substitute for them through tight-knit expat communities – today’s diaspora are simultaneously more globalised and more individualised.

Constantly looking to invent the future can lead to a culture that doesn’t look too far into the past, but it is worth pausing to consider the names on the gravestones in the Mission Dolores, to think of Joseph Cunningham and Katie Lennon and Annia Coffey’s children.

Separated by more than 150 years, the migratory journeys of the early Irish migrants who rest in the Mission Dolores and the modern migrants working in the global technology capital could hardly be more at odds.

In the differences between them, we see not just how San Francisco has been transformed or how Ireland has developed, but also how the emigrant experience itself has dramatically changed, from one of survival to one of ambition, and from one of permanent displacement to one of constant connection.

Here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where so much of tomorrow's world is taking shape, it is perhaps possible to catch a glimpse at what the future of our diaspora will look like.

Supported by the Global Irish Media Fund

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